01/24/2011 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Say Goodbye to 1999

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the pre-Christmas doldrums, The New York Observer ran a short item proclaiming the Wall Street Journal the dominant outlet for M&A reporting. One week earlier, the Observer had produced a gushing ode to The New York Times' ever-expanding DealBook, complete with details of the website's star-studded fete at the Four Seasons, which it described as "the kind of blowout bash that has become all but extinct in New York newspaper circles." Clearly tired of all the DealBook hoopla, a Journal staffer jumped into action and provided the Observer with an in-house accounting of deal scoops for 2010.

Final score? WSJ: 14; NYT: 3.

How odd. And not just because, as a few media types vented on Twitter, the Observer based the Journal's deal dominance on data both prepared and leaked by the Journal itself. What's really strange is the notion that, in 2011 (or year-end 2010), counting up scoops delivered by a bunch of mostly mainstream newspapers tells you anything about who is dominant in deal reporting. (The Journal ranked only itself, The New York Times, the Financial Times and Bloomberg, but weirdly enough, not Reuters or anyone else.) In fact, the Observer piece reads like an artifact from 1999 or 2000, when the Wall Street Journal controlled the market for deal scoops, in part by promising sources prominent placement of M&A news -- in the newspaper -- in return for exclusivity.

Indeed, print was so dominant then that when the Financial Times started targeting the Journal's M&A stranglehold by publishing deal scoops on its website before its papers hit the street, the strategy was considered both radical and risky. Today the thought of holding an exclusive M&A story for print publication is laughable. Not only has the Internet enabled the big papers to compete for scoops in real time (inspiring all sorts of speculative reporting and rumormongering), but it has also spawned a raft of specialized deal sites that mostly exist behind fairly high pay walls. These include not only The Deal LLC's The Deal Pipeline, but the Financial Times' dealReporter and Mergermarket products, and private equity-focused PitchBook News.

These sites, with their highly specialized audiences of practitioners who are willing to pay big bucks for any piece of information believed to be "actionable" -- that is, anything they can profit from -- has made the whole idea of counting scoops a more complicated exercise. For one thing, stories first reported on these sites might never be seen by journalists at mainstream outlets, or by the market at large; or they may be too small or arcane for mainstream purposes. While that will definitely lessen their value as "scoops" in media terms, it may raise their value to these sites' customers. After all, ideas are a lot more actionable when they are delivered exclusively to a specific audience rather than made available to anybody with an Internet connection and the ability to read.

Another point to consider is that with so many outlets, mainstream and specialized, competing to break deal news, the whole idea of what constitutes a scoop can be difficult to define. Is it a report on an incremental development in an auction? A story about a company thinking of putting itself up for sale? Or a piece that appears hours before a deal's announcement, complete with pricing and quotes from the principals?

Judging from the list the Journal provided the Observer, it, for one, believes deal scoops to be all of the above. Indeed, the Journal credits itself with a scoop on 3Par Inc., but that company's sale to Hewlett-Packard Co. followed a frenzied bidding war with Dell Inc. with many twists and turns. So what piece of all the news generated by that deal can the Journal claim as its own? It also boasts of being the first to report on the sale of Burger King Holdings Inc. to 3G Capital. But it neglects to mention that its first take on that deal incorrectly substituted 3i Group plc for 3G.

This isn't meant to be snarky. We know as well as anyone how difficult it is to get everything right when we're scrambling for a scoop. But the fact is the waning dominance of the mainstream press has created a paradoxical situation, in which real scoops may be more important than ever and, at the same time, ever harder to define.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.